In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world's greatest and most brazen smugglers. In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali. Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara's heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali's - and the world's - literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city's manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants' march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.
So far, so good.... but then, Hammer starts talking about war. I realized that Hammer is a war correspondent - his passion is reporting on war and power struggles and troop movements. Once he started covering the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist cells in Mali, and their eventual conquest of Timbuktu, he stopped talking about books and libraries at all. In fact, probably about half of the book is just about war, and includes no mention of librarians. Then there are a few chapters at the end where manuscripts are mentioned again, almost as an afterthought, and with annoyingly little detail. He does tell the story of how the manuscripts were smuggled out of Mali, but leaves open more questions than he answers.
If this book had been written by a librarian or a manuscript scholar, it would have been really really good. Or if it had been advertised as the story of the war in Mali, it would have been just fine. But it starts out as a fascinating story about manuscripts and the Islamic contribution to world scholarship, and then it just becomes a war story.
Haidara was still in his teens when his father died and he became the custodian of his family's manuscripts. He was soon approached by the director of a government manuscript collection in Timbuktu, and he ended up working for this library for more than a decade. He learned about manuscripts and their preservation, and he built a network of contacts among the families who owned manuscripts. He eventually turned his attention to his own collection, and he was successful in securing grants from international donors to restore and preserve the manuscripts.
When an Islamic jihadist group seized control of northern Mali, including Timbuktu, Haidara realized that his life's work was in danger. He devised a plan to smuggle the manuscripts out of Timbuktu and into government-controlled territory. It's probably obvious that the operation was successful, or there wouldn't be a book about it. But what did it involve, and how successful was it? You'll have to read the book to find out!
Hammer includes a lot of background information on the jihadists and their operations. The background material comprises nearly half of the book. It's a complex tale, yet it's important context for the rescue of the manuscripts. Readers need to know what these manuscripts were rescued from. The background details also demonstrate that the jihadist insurgency in Mali wasn't an isolated event. It's connected to terrorist organizations and networks that include Al Qaeda and ISIS.
World music fans may be interested in the connections to Tuareg music and the Festival in the Desert. If you're familiar with Tinariwen, Amanar, or Khaira Arby, this book may be for you.
Haidara over the years matured into a mild-mannered archivist and historian, along with marrying and raising a family. Then in 2012, Al Qaeda militants seized control of Mali, including Timbuktu, and the marvelous collection and the scholarship around it was in danger of being destroyed.
At first Al Qaeda leaders were outwardly respectful of the collection and its value, but as their grip tightened, that didn't last. Priceless manuscripts representing an important part of Mali and the world's literary heritage, was in danger of being destroyed.
Haidara, thirty years after his original adventures, organized a massive smuggling operation, to get that amazing collection of priceless manuscripts out of the country, right under the noses of the Al Qaeda occupiers. No short review can capture how thrilling this story is, or how well Hammer recounts it. Haidara and his crew of scholarly librarians risked their lives and smuggled crates of manuscripts downriver to safety at risk of horrible punishments Al Qaeda imposed on those who violated their version of Sharia law. It's an exciting, amazing, thrilling story, and an exceptional example of the devotion of dedicated librarians to preservation of and access to knowledge.
I bought this book.
Although completely necessary to the book, I did find that it bogged down in the politics. Who did what to whom. Who should've done this. Why this group moved here. It was eye-crossing after a while, but I soldiered through so I could thoroughly appreciate what Haidara and other people did.
Not many people would risk their lives to save a library, no matter how precious it was. We should all be thankful that men and women like Abdel Kader Haidara exist, and I for one am thankful that Joshua Hammer told their story.
Review: The title is misleading in that it appears to be an adventure novel. It's really a well written history of happenings in and around Timbuktu. I found large sections of the book ponderous despite the well written prose.
I doubt that's how it happened, but that is how it reads. The military sections are intricate and detailed, full of minutiae. We learn the menus of planning sessions and all manner of information. The tale of the manuscripts comes off as comparatively superficial. It's not, really, but Hammer is so invested in the former, showing that there is where his true interest is, that the other pales. Still, though, it is good to have, in this age that so often denies that books have any worth, an account of a life devoted to the physical object of the text even at the risk of life.
The overall description of the book on goodreads led me to believe I’d be reading all about the daring escapades of these librarians in Timbuktu and get to know them all individually as well. Instead, while there is an underlying plot that follows one specific “librarian” and his efforts to preserve the family heirloom manuscripts of the people in Timbuktu, the book’s overlying plot really follows the rise and fall of Al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement in the area (most specifically Timbuktu but the greater area of Mali).
The history and events there are important for understanding the heroic actions taken by those who wished to preserve the precious manuscripts of their people, but it definitely ended up taking center stage rather than the librarians themselves (for the most part). That history and storyline of those events are all quiet well done, but for me it took a lot of effort to remain focused during these times and to stick with the book.
For those who want to know more about these sorts of events and places like Mali that have battled Al-Qaeda for so long, I think this would be a great book to pick up. It is well done in that regard. For book nerds and librarians who expected a book mostly about books and bookish things, this one might not be the one for you.
In 2012, manuscript collector, archivist and adventurer (I think it is misleading to call him a librarian) Abdel Kader Haidara launched a daring plan to save thousands of historic Islamic documents from destruction by the fundamentalist jihadis of AQIM, who occupied Tumbuktu at the time. These radical Islamists posed a threat to the manuscripts because they hated the tolerant version of Islam presented in them. Haidara's plan to smuggle the codices to safety was executed not by librarians but by the teenage sons and nephews of librarians, including Haidara's own nephew and chief assistant Mohammad Touré. These young men (and Haidara himself, who coordinated the massive effort) are the real "bad-asses".
Much of the narrative is taken up by background information about Timbuktu, Mali, and AQIM. This information is well-presented, but I kept wanting the narrative to get back to plot to save the manuscripts.
Recommended for those who listen to the radio program "The World" on NPR.
1. The author is a journalist and contributing editor; the publisher is high class. And yet, the book cries out for maps, illustrations, glossary, timelines, and cohesion. There are exactly two visuals, one on each endpaper. One is a map of Mali - missing the context of its geographic location in Africa - the other an unidentified "manuscript page." What a disappointment.
2. Because the action shifts back and forth in time,and the cast of characters is extensive, we lose track of dates and who's who.
3. The story promised by the title is really not the core of the book; rather it is instability of the region fueled by jihadist warfare.
This tale of the manuscripts and the dedicated people who saved them is worth reading, but the book could have been so much better.
The story of the manuscripts is interesting--how they were gotten, preserved, hidden from the jihadists, removed from Timbuktu, and saved. The cultural history of the area and the manuscripts was more interesting. I learned a lot. The current history of the area was extremely interesting. This book opened my eyes to so much. This is only a drop of what I don't know. It makes me want to read more about African history, colonialism in Africa, the French Foreign Legion, whatever more whets my appetite to learn.
The book combines a thriller/adventure story with the story of the rise of al Qaeda in Africa. I highly recommend it.
Paul Boehmer is a fine audio performer and brings so much to life with his talents.
I found the author's ego a little intrusive at times, but it was worth reading to find out more about this part of Africa and its rich manuscript traditions.